On March 1, eight-year-old D.C. resident Relisha Rudd disappeared. She was, according to news reports, homeless, hungry, and in the care of a man who likely killed her. The search for her body didn’t even begin until almost three weeks after she was last seen, and, after just one week and a dwindling number of tips, police effectively stopped looking.
On September 13, eighteen-year-old University of Virginia sophomore Hannah Graham disappeared. She was, according to Charlottesville police chief Timothy Longo, a “bright, intelligent, athletic, friendly, beautiful college student who’s been part of our community for the past two years.” Hours after she went missing, state emergency management officials launched a massive search effort that was fueled by more than 4,000 tips. A little more than a month later, her body was recovered.
What can possibly account for the dramatic differences in these two stories? Both girls were filled with promise and potential. Both girls’ disappearances attracted the helpful glare of media attention. And both girls’ families deserved the closure that only a retrieval of their bodies could provide. So while I am grateful that the Graham family can now give Hannah a proper burial, I am appalled that here in D.C. – in the midst of a mayoral election, no less – the disappearance of Relisha Rudd has faded from public conversation altogether. And while I would love to say that the different outcomes of these two searches have nothing to do with race, the reality is that these two stories underscore what has been true for the duration of our nation’s history: black girls like Relisha don’t matter as much as white girls like Hannah.
Consider, for example, that whereas Graham was a college sophomore on a campus designed by Thomas Jefferson to serve as a beacon for the value of public education, Relisha’s first elementary school, Ferebee-Hope, was closed in 2013. Consider that whereas Hannah’s parents regularly appeared together at press conferences to make emotional pleas for help in finding their daughter, Relisha’s mother, Shamika Young, was a single parent who never reported Relisha missing out of fear that authorities would take away her other three children and enter them into the foster care system – a system Young herself had been shuttled through as a child. And consider that whereas Hannah had been supported, nourished and challenged by her high school and college communities, Relisha hated the homeless shelter at which she lived so much so that she would sometimes fake asthma attacks at friend’s houses in the hope that she could stay, and adults from her old school recalled her often arriving with filthy clothes, dirty hair and an empty stomach.
These are not just the differences between two girls’ stories. They are the difference between the seeds our society has decided to tend, and the seeds it has decided to discard. As the Washington Post’s Petula Dvorak has written, “what the nation’s capital has sanctioned — a miniature, shameful city of about 800 displaced and homeless residents who live in squalid, depressing conditions next to the morgue and among the clients at a methadone clinic — is fertile ground for evil.” And what the rest of us have sanctioned by our relative silence is just as malevolent – a tale of two cities, two worlds, two paths, and two girls – only one of whom matters.
We can’t begin to undo the systemic inequities that led to Hannah’s and Relisha’s starkly contrasting lives until that contrast becomes the central topic of D.C.’s upcoming mayoral election – not to mention the midterm congressional elections nationwide. And even if/when it becomes the central topic, it will require generations of effort to undo generations of injustice. We are not a post-racial society, and we have a lot of work to do.
We can, however, do something that won’t take generations, or elections, or policies to remedy.
We can find the collective will and focus to move mountains, as Charlottesville did, and we can find Relisha Rudd.